A life completely without social media hardly exists in society today. But how do we shape the increasingly inevitable digital side of our existence? And what does that do to us?
In autumn 2017, the "Online Laboratory for Digital Cultural Education" project was launched at Kiel University, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Under the direction of the Department of Media Education and Educational Information Technology at the Institute of Educational Sciences along with the Institute of Art History at Kiel University, a collection was initiated afterwards, which instead of counting emojis and click rates, aims at the qualitative core of the matter, at the interaction between the individual and the world around them, whatever its nature may be.
Under the motto "Show Your World! Discover Diversity! Shape Digital Culture!" an "Atlas of Social Media" was created, available both digitally and as a print-on-demand book, which provides a space to encounter others and their experiences and to position oneself. This may sound abstract at first, but it is aimed at very tangible things. “We were interested in how people share their experiences and exploits," explained Christoph Schröder, who brought a media educational perspective to the project.
The work was embedded in so-called research workshops. A total of more than 100 participants from different age groups were invited to share specific experiences from their digital everyday lives. To do so, they performed tasks related to social media. Ultimately, some of the around 70 contributions made in this way were included in the "Atlas of Social Media", whereby this selection is intended to reflect a broad range of content.
This raises the question of what an "ordinary post" looks like and how it arises, for example in praise of a Hefezopf (yeast braid). Under the motto "I bake myself a post", the author published a small series of pictures on Instagram about its production, from the dough mass with various ingredients right through to the finished product. As mundane as it may seem, the associations connected to this are very complex. Among other things, the author wrote: "I wanted both the ingredients and the finished product to look just the way I perceived them (without a camera). Without filters, I could not achieve this goal." In order for a motif to appear the way it really is, it is distorted. This is ultimately the logic which must take on further challenges associated with the demands of social media. For example, because a photo cannot show how a yeast braid smells or tastes, the author was concerned about "what it appeared that it would taste like." So she edited the image to make the colours of the baked product shine.
According to Nick Böhnke, a research associate at the Institute of Art History at Kiel University who approaches social media practices from a theoretical visual perspective, this highlights a common pattern. "In communication through social media, people often convey their own direct experiences to others through pictures," he said, describing the need to convey emotions, smells, tastes and many other perceptions using visual means.
It's no different with the spontaneity that seems to be part of countless photos on Instagram, Facebook or even also on more private channels like WhatsApp: often something seems to be spontaneous based on the situation – but in truth, it is carefully arranged.
For those responsible for the project, including the psychologist Christoph Richter, the art historian Martina Ide and the editor of the book Heidrun Allert, professor of education and educational information technology, such arrangements do not necessarily equate to vile manipulation along the lines of "fake news mania". In fact, the atlas, which in places presents almost poetic written contributions, featuring images ranging from a seemingly ingenuous snapshot in front of an alpine cabin right through to a back-lit picture of the rainless city of Frankfurt and numerous other examples, highlights the logic of social media: a post is often distorted in order to make it look real.
Author: Martin Geist
Böhnke, Nick et al. (Hrsg.): Atlas Sozialer Medien: Verortungen in den Weiten digitaler Kultur. Universitätsverlag Kiel | Kiel University Publishing 2022
Available in printed form in bookshops and as a PDF for free download at bit.ly/atlas-sozialer-medien